Like Getting My Balls Kicked In: An Interview with Dino DiMuro

Dino DiMuro is a true renaissance man. In addition to working as a sound effects editor for some major films (more on that later), he’s the author of a book based on his adventurous youth, an incredibly inventive and talented recording artist, and visual artist as well. Given my own interests, I naturally see him as a kindred spirit and wanted to know more, so I dropped him a line…

Your Twitter bio says you’re a former sound effects editor. What kind of work did you do? What was involved?

My job was to edit sound effects and create sound design sequences for movies, TV and cable. I began by working on 35mm sound film (like regular movie film but with a magnetic stripe instead of pictures) by literally cutting pieces with a splicer and matching sounds to action. When the industry converted to digital, I learned to edit on both PC and Mac. The skills I learned doing movie tracks were later utilized to make my albums when I moved away from four-track tape.

I would create sound for most things you saw onscreen, except for dialogue and music (though sometimes I did that, too). Anything from door handles to cars to explosions to space ships. Most people have heard of Foley Walkers, and part of my job was to take their sounds and tweak them into perfect sync.

I was sometimes credited as a Sound Designer, though strictly speaking a designer spends most of his time creating new sound effects with a huge arsenal of outboard gear, or by recording new and interesting effects. My skill was taking standard library sounds or newly recorded effects and using them in unique ways, often creating movie sequences that were technically “designed.” It’s a distinction I never cared about, but the people who assign credits always wanted to know.

The credits I always point to are: the Home Alone series, Gladiator and other films by Ridley Scott, JFK, Jackass, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, the Bond film Skyfall, The Revenant, and finally the cable series Narcos where I did about 80% of the sound effects.

You recently posted a fairly large selection of digital images on Twitter – really wild stuff that included what I’m guessing are digitally enhanced photos of rock icons like Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa, as well as pop culture mash-ups like Batman drinking beer. And my favorite, Train Ride In Hell – Dedicated to Thomas, Kavanaugh, and the Rest. How did you make these images, and what was the idea behind them?

That’s an online site called Craiyon.com where you can enter any kind of prompt, and their AI interface will draw the pictures for you. It’s fun and addictive, though there’s limitations. I’m thinking of using a Craiyon picture for a future CD cover. As I tried some of my ideas, it became clear that some ideas worked better on the program than others, which is why I started doing musical artists. As you noted, these turned out quite interesting!

Like me, you seem to have a love-hate relationship with SubmitHub. Can you comment on that?

Just to wind back a bit, I had been out of the music networking scene for several years. I got remarried, and though my wife Sharon is 100% supportive of my music, we had to move several times in a few years. Also, my work career had to change because feature film jobs became difficult to find, and cable TV took up most of my creative time. Finally, my recording software went out of date and I wasn’t ready to upgrade.

When I finally reemerged, the entire music scene I had known was gone. All the indie music zines had folded, along with most review websites. The Mail Music Network had morphed into online sharing and Spotify playlists. I wrote emails to as many websites or Playlisters as I could, but my entreaties were totally ignored. Then I discovered SubmitHub, which guarantees at least one listen and a Yes or No, but you’ve got to pay for the privilege. Turns out some of the people I’d already reached out to actually responded on SubmitHub, because there was now money involved.

Anyway, though I found a few sites that did accept my music, for the most part my stuff is too offbeat and “primitive” for Playlisters to bother with. They don’t like my vocals, or it’s not their genre, or it’s not slick or modern enough. These are things that rarely would have mattered in the old home taping network. The better zines would review a tape based on what it tried to be, not what it WASN’T. Also, it’s amazing to me how so many Spotify curators have no frame of reference for my music, even when I point it out. They’ll criticize a Beefheart tribute track like I made it up out of thin air!

So any time I use SubmitHub, I know it’s going to feel like getting my balls kicked in over and over, just to find one or two open-minded sites. As a result I’m trying to use them less often, but I’m sure I’ll be back under the whip soon.

You also write indie music album reviews for Divide and Conquer. Does writing reviews of other people’s music give you a sense of perspective on reviews of—or just reactions to—your own music?

Absolutely. Part of the reason I wanted to review for Divide was because in the old cassette days, it really helped that I was a writer for Option Magazine, which was the most slick publication for indie musicians in the ‘80s. I would often get to know the people I reviewed, or artists would contact me based on my name. I thought a similar thing might happen by reviewing on a blog, and I was right: between Divide and Twitter, I’ve pretty much rebuilt a music network for myself that is almost as rewarding as the old one. Sadly, though, without getting zines or physical media in the mail, it will never be quite the same.

But to answer your question: yes, I am always hyper aware while reviewing new music that it could be ME I’m listening to, and if I have a problem with a track, I try to put myself in that artist’s shoes to see where they’re coming from. If I note that the EQ is off or there’s too much reverb, I know damned well that similar things can and will be said about me, and I try to remember that when it’s my turn on the chopping block.

I’m also curious about your book, Elmwood. I understand that it’s based on true events from your childhood: forming a rock band without instruments and setting out to create the greatest school newspaper ever (among other things). What inspired you to look back on your early years and write it all down? Was there something bittersweet about doing so?

My friendship with the guy I call Elmwood was the greatest time of my life. I don’t know how I would have turned out if I hadn’t met him when I did. We were very different people from each other but total misfits around our peers, so we locked into each other’s worlds with a shared love of music and the desire to be Rock Stars. Not sure how it is now, but when I was growing up, pretending you had a rock group was something that could get you beat up or at least humiliated. We had to keep it a secret, and that bonded us even more. I can’t believe it’s that way for kids nowadays, with all the affordable starter kits you can get from Guitar Center. Wish they had those then! My generation had to shop with the “grownups.”

Because that time with my best friend was so important, I was constantly documenting our adventures on paper, along with countless tapes and a good memory. As a result, the earliest versions of “Elmwood” were started just a couple years after the events happened, and then revised over time. I’m so glad I did that because I would have lost so many of those memories by now. The memories themselves are bittersweet, but finally finishing the book was only a good thing. I was hoping someone would buy it for a feature, but… oh, well!

And, of course, there’s your music. Your latest single, “Comma Visit Hollywood” offers a quirky take on tourist culture, and one of your previous releases, “Like an Almond Joy,” is funky paean to the candy bar and the consequences of over-indulging. Lyrically, I feel like you’re balancing humor with a little bit of cultural criticism, or maybe vice-versa. Is that a fair assessment? What’s your approach to writing lyrics?

Most of my lyrics turn out somewhat humorous. I’d like to be more like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan but you can’t hide who you are! It’s always been hard for me to keep a straight face in my everyday life. I don’t start out saying: “Here’s a funny song!” But often the topic just lends itself.

The Hollywood single follows a tradition of “Hollywood Songs” that my friend John and I have done for years, because there’s so much you can say. Hollywood is a great place and it’s a horrible place. Good weather, and horrifically hot weather. Movie Stars, and lame reality stars. So I guess my approach is to let the topic take me wherever it wants to go.

Generally I get a song idea or a title, then grab a guitar and just start playing and singing whatever comes out. Later I edit both the music and the lyrics, though I admit that the lyrics get the least amount of changes. I always try, but then I start missing what I began with and often go back. Or, I’ll have a guitar track and then “graft” some lyrics on top of it. “South Bay Wine Bar” from my last CD is an example of that. It was originally called “South Bay Brothel,” but I was no longer interested in that idea and did a complete rewrite. That’s rare, but I’m starting to do that more often.

I’m hearing echoes of Frank Zappa in your lyrics as well as your music. What draws you to his music?

My first exposure to Frank was “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” and you can imagine the effect that song had on a twelve-year-old! It was nasty, of course, but also had this wild balance of classical complexity and unbridled madness, like a bunch of friends just making it up as they went along.

But my first full Mothers album was “We’re Only In It For The Money” which was a total life-changer for me. I don’t mean to say that Frank “taught” me to do music like this, but hearing that kind of stuff coming off a real vinyl record – crazy songs, phone calls, voice snippets, experimental sounds, razor-tight editing – only confirmed that the music I wanted to do really COULD be done. It took me much longer to appreciate what Frank was doing musically because I was so blown away by his presentation and audacity. Of course, Frank led me to Captain Beefheart, who is probably my favorite artist of all time, but you can probably hear more of Frank in my music because we were already in sync when I discovered him. With Beefheart I really have to make an effort to “pay tribute” to his sound.

I’m also hearing a bit of Brian Wilson in your voice—latter-day mature-voiced Brian, if I can put it that way. Plus the album art for your Project 5 album is reminiscent of Pet Sounds. So I’m guessing there’s a little bit of an influence there. Are you a fan?

Yes, I love Brian, always have. I hate to age myself but I grew up when the Beatles and Beach Boys were new! In fact the studio where Brian cut “Surfin’” is literally two blocks from my house right now. I was a little young to buy or understand Pet Sounds when it came out, but by the time of the Surf’s Up album I started to see what Brian was doing and have been following him ever since. I think I literally cried when I first played the Brian version of SMiLE after waiting so many years. My friend Greg designed the Project 5 cover. All I wanted was the Pet Sounds font, but Greg decided to go all the way and I was totally thrilled with the result.

And you have a double-CD coming out soon—Heatstroke Alley. It’s definitely an evocative title! Is it a concept album? When will it be available?

Not really a concept album, except that I’ve started to prefer double albums because I can stretch out thematically. I can include spare instrumental interludes or jam fragments that might unbalance a single disc. They also take longer to finish making, and I was getting so prolific that I wanted to give both my wife and my cover designer a little break. Of course that’s a lot of music to ask my few fans to absorb, but I have always loved epics (Uncle Meat, Trout Mask Replica, Mellon Collie, Double Nickels on the Dime) and even if it takes more time to listen, I’m hoping the effort is worth it.

Heatstroke was supposed to be ready around now, and it’s getting closer, but now that the summer heat has settled in, my pace will be slowing. It could be a couple or three months from now. But besides the first two singles already released, there will be two more. Even hoping for a surprise guest who many Twitter people will know!

Intriguing! Anything else on the horizon?

I always have at least three albums planned in advance, but the main one after Heatstroke will be called Machine. It’s another double and will be totally based on drum machines, beat samples, and a few specially recorded drum tracks (by Rob Steadman of Kritters). Musically a lot of it will be built on improvisation. This is because there’s probably another move in my near future, so If I record a big hunk of raw material first, I can spend any spare time I have editing what I’ve got without worrying about my entire studio being up and running.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!

Thanks for asking!

Life Is Funny: All About Frankie Lumlit

Life is funny. I had my friend Tim Simmons over to my house to play some music a while back, and he made an offhand comment: “Dude, you have the jankiest drumkit!”

To be fair, he was right. I bought my drumkit a year ago from a guy on the edge of town. The morning I picked it up, he was sharpening knives in his basement and eagerly awaiting a shipment of AK-47 rounds. I know this because he told me so.

He also threw a bunch of additional drums I didn’t need into the deal, telling me that he had to make room in the basement. For what, I wasn’t sure, but I also didn’t want to ask, as I didn’t really want to know how many AK-47 rounds he was waiting on. Mainly, I just wanted to leave before the ammunition arrived.

All of this is to say that it’s a previously-owned drumkit. Or, to put it another way, a recycled drumkit. Which means I’ve also had to make a few adaptations to make it sound the way I want it to sound: mixing and matching the various drums that my knife-sharpening friend foisted upon me, employing a vast array of odds and ends (including but not limited to duct tape, tea towels, a circle of plastic sheeting I cut from a shelf liner, and a polishing cloth that came with a pair of glasses) to get the heads to sound just right, and a length of chain on my crash cymbal to give it some “sizzle.”

Also worth noting, the kit is wedged into a tight corner in a tiny room in my basement. To get situated behind the drums, I need to squeeze between the ride cymbal and a worktable while trying not to knock over a stack of milk crates loaded with old recording gear.

So, yeah, Tim was right. My drumkit is definitely janky.

But here’s the thing: Tim loves the way it sounds, so he wasn’t criticizing my kit so much as marveling at how I’ve managed to jerry-rig it.

In any case, we played music for a bit, laying down some tracks for the follow-up to the first Simmons and Schuster album, and I pretty much forgot about Tim’s comment—until a few days later when I sat down to play my drums.

It really is a janky drumkit, I thought. Maybe there’s a story there.

Stories about music were on my mind (again) because of Tim. He had written a children’s book called Serafine Learns to Sing a few years earlier and was now teaching a course on writing stories for young readers. I’d also done a little bit of writing in the past myself, so I had a basic understanding of things like plot, character, and setting. So why not?

Concept sketch for cover.

My original thought was to write a story called The Jankiest Drumkit. It would be told from the drumkit’s perspective and be about how the world’s jankiest drumkit was always being passed over until someone special discovered it and realized that it sounded amazing. The problem, though, was that I wasn’t sure how to tell the story from the perspective of an inanimate object. Also, if the drumkit were sentient, would there be ethical issues in terms of beating it with sticks?

So, no, the story wouldn’t be told from the drumkit’s perspective. Instead, I decided it would be about a child with a janky drumkit. And the child’s name would have to rhyme with “janky drumkit.” I’m not sure why. Maybe a hint of Dr. Seuss.

Curiously, it took me a while to come up with the name Frankie Lumlit. The Frankie part came pretty quickly. But the last name was the real mystery to me. I remember lying awake at night cycling through names: Gumbit? Humrit? Bumpit? Dumbwit? The list went on and on.

Once I settled on a name, I had an inkling that Frankie’s story shouldn’t be too close to my own. Something about buying a drumkit from a creepy survivalist sharpening knives in his basement while waiting for a shipment of AK-47 ammunition struck me as not quite right for a children’s book.

Also, if Frankie was supposed to be a child, how would he drive out to the edge of town to get the drumkit? It just didn’t make sense. That’s when I hit on the idea that Frankie might build his own drumkit. From there, it all came together very quickly—the story, anyway:

Frankie Lumlit leads a quiet life until he hears a song that changes everything for him (an experience that I imagine a lot of us have had). He’s so taken by the music that he wants to be a musician, too, but he can’t afford an instrument, so he builds a drumkit out of odds and ends he finds in the recycling bin (an echo of my own “recycled” drums). He’s proud of his drumkit until a friend of his laughs at it (shades of Tim Simmons!), but eventually his drumkit takes center stage at a big rock concert.

Once the story was written, I had to figure out how to illustrate it. I’d done some drawing and digital art in the past, so I knew I could start with some basic sketches on paper and then play with them in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. But I also wanted to make sure I came at it from the right angle, so I sketched out a bunch of possibilities for Frankie: a timid-looking kid with chubby cheeks, a round-headed Muppet, a pointy-eared gnome.

Early sketches.

Eventually I decided that I was overcomplicating things and decided to do a quick sketch without thinking too much about it. Whatever I drew, that would be Frankie, and the other characters would follow from there.

As for the rest of it, I spent the next few weeks taking pictures and figuring out how to turn them into illustrations. A lot of tracing was involved. And a lot of superimposing of images on top of each other.

I should note that I owe a debt to my friend and colleague Wayne Brew for the image of the theater where the story reaches its climax; with his blessing, I traced a photo of an abandoned movie theater that he had posted on Instagram. I also put myself into that illustration as the “man with a clipboard.”

Altogether, it took me about a month to illustrate the book. When I was finished, I queried a few agents but never heard back, which is fine. I’d had a lot of luck with publishing my book about the Beach Boys’ Holland album directly through Amazon, so I figured I’d try the same thing with this one.

I suppose at this point I should mention the title of the book: Frankie Lumlit’s Janky Drumkit. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s what people in the industry call an “early reader,” which is to say that it’s written with an audience of six-to-eight-year-olds in mind.

My goal, as you might guess, was to write a book about creativity—something that can get a child’s imagination going, particularly with respect to music. For some reason, I imagine aunts and uncles who are into music buying it for their nieces and nephews who live in quiet homes like Frankie does at the beginning of the story. With any luck, it will open up a world of possibilities and encourage the kind of do-it-yourself ethos that inspires so many of the musicians and artists that I’ve grown to admire over the years.

If you’re curious, I’d love for you to give it a read:

Available on AMAZON USA

Available on AMAZON UK

Not That I Really Care…

Not that I really care, but I was buying a copy of my recent Beach Boys book for a friend when I spotted the sole customer review: “Not an informative write. Just personal opinions of the author. A more subjective review of the fairy tale would have been more interesting.”

Of course, I’m glad someone bought the book. I’m also happy with the three-star rating the reviewer gave it. Nonetheless, I’m having trouble reconciling a) the critique that the book consists only of the “personal opinions of the author” with b) the reviewer’s opinion that a “more subjective review” would have been “more interesting.” So the problem is that the book is both too subjective and not subjective enough? That there’s too much opinion and not enough opinion?

It’s also worth noting that although I do voice opinions and offer analysis throughout the book, I also include loads of facts — names, dates, quotes, historical context, and geographical details chief among them. So to describe it as an “uninformative write” (whatever that means) and nothing more than “personal opinions of the author,” I would argue, is inaccurate.

Again, not that I really care.